I had been on the road since 3 AM when I pulled up to a locked gate in remote southern Colorado just before six, right as sunlight was starting to peek over mountains in the east. Two strangers were waiting as I arrived, having camped at the gate overnight, and another would soon appear in my wake.
The four of us had each paid a fee of $150 to climb one of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks – the only peak with an official price tag – and thus, here we were, arriving on a date booked in advance during a 15 minute window in which we would be allowed to enter the private ranch found just outside of a tiny town called San Luis.
Cielo Vista Ranch spans more than 80,000 acres in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range of the Rocky Mountains. The property climbs to the 14,047-foot summit of Culebra Peak, the only fourteener in the state without standard public access. It's also the southernmost peak on the state's list of 58 summits above 14,000-feet.
The four of us gathered at the gate would be the only people on the mountain that day. Even on busier days when deep, wet snow isn't covering the route, the access is capped at just 20 people. Because of this, the mountain is able to keep its pristine nature intact. There's not even an established route up the peak, with visitors asked to span out during their climb to avoid over-trampling any specific path.
Six o'clock hit and we were allowed access to the mountain. After attending a briefing from a friendly ranch hand, our adventure was set to begin with a bluebird, albeit windy day in the forecast.
In April, the route up the peak can vary with snowpack. On this day, vehicles could drive a small portion of the route to the upper trailhead. With a short lift from the aforementioned ranch hand, my trip would clock in at about 12.5 miles and 5,000 feet of gain. With a four-wheel drive vehicle, the summer route to the summit can clock in at about 5 miles and 2,700 feet of gain from the upper trailhead.
The first portion of the hike was up a snow-covered road. At this point, no traction was needed, as the snow was still frozen solid from the night before. Some springtime weather had rolled through hours ago, dropping about a half-inch of powder in the area, along with a little rain.
Winding through the trees, it took about two and a half miles to reach the upper trailhead from my starting point. The upper trailhead was right at treeline – 11,240 feet above sea level.
While the snow-covered nature of the road didn't give me much of a route to follow up to this point, the trail really fades after the upper trailhead is hit. At this point, climbers must pick their route to a target ridgeline above, climbing around one thousand feet in less than a mile. Now post-holing in deeper snow that was being warmed by the morning sun, I found this stretch of the hike to be quite strenuous.
Eventually, I reach the ridge. At this point of the hike, the towering Culebra Peak can be seen in full view, as can the remainder of the route to the summit.
The rest of the route undulates a bit, taking hikers through a series of ups and downs before a larger vertical push to the summit. One large cairn can be seen, but aside from that, hikers are relatively on their own when it comes to navigation. Thankfully, the class two nature of the route isn't that demanding provided that hikers are comfortable with a little bit of ridgeline exposure and likely wind.
As my climb up the mountain continued, the snow-covered route remained straightforward. Being able to see the summit from a distance made it easy to find the correct final approach.
The final approach up Culebra is quite rocky with the path of least resistance is mostly ridge proper. A false summit is encountered along the way, approximately halfway through the final push. During my climb, this is where the wind really started to pick up.
Views from the top of Culebra are stunning, offering a panoramic scene filled with mountains, as well as the vast San Luis Valley in the distance.
At this point, I was fairly exhausted, hoping that my descent would be a bit less taxing. Wet and heavy snow beneath my feet would ensure that this would not be the case, coupled with strong winds periodically blasting tiny shards of snow across my face. The flying snow limited visibility, but following the ridge made route-finding easy.
After a long trek back down the ridge and down the larger snow-covered slope with a few attempts at glissading, I reached the road. Frozen snow that was easily traveled in the morning had become quite weak, with every other step I took dropping down to a layer a couple feet below, forcing a pistol squat motion with my other leg to pull my foot back out. At this point, I wished I had stashed some snowshoes at treeline. Four slow miles later, I was back at my car.
Overall, I thought the hike up Culebra Peak was a great experience. I found it more strenuous than I was anticipating, though that was likely due to the wet snow and strong winds encountered during my descent.
I'd recommend this hike for a number of reasons. First, the $150 price tag is expensive compared to free routes found on other peaks, but this ensures a less-crowded experience. Second, the climb is in a part of the state that doesn't get explored often while still being easily accessible from Colorado Springs. And third, the hike offers a chance to climb a mountain without a set trail – something not found on other 14,000-foot peaks. If I get the chance, I'll definitely be back in the summer months to experience the climb without snow.
Editor's Note: Heads up – other routes are talked about online that can be used to climb Culebra Peak. These routes are trespassing and trespassers are regularly prosecuted after illegally climbing the mountain. Stick to the official reservation system if you're looking to climb this peak.